What Happens in the Air (Love in the Valley Book 1)

Cover of What Happens in the Air, a novel by Michele Dunaway. Features a man and a woman standing in a hot air balloon. His arm is around her. They are in the air.


They had to come home!

After Luke Thornburg shattered her heart, Shelby Bien fled town to become a jet-setting photographer. She’s shocked to find that single dad Luke’s back in Beaumont— and that the demise of their love wasn’t what it seemed. When they join forces to fly their families’ hot-air balloon, it’s Shelby’s chance at a cover story. And, just maybe, a second chance for the former sweethearts’ own story…

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harlequin Special Edition; Original edition (January 24, 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Mass Market Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1335724486
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1335724489
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 4.8 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 4.19 x 0.72 x 6.63 inches


Can’t recommend enough

I finished What Happens in the Air by @micheledunaway a few days ago and adored it. I haven’t stopped thinking about Shelby and Luke. This is a second chance romance between first loves who went separate ways pursuing life paths & along the way we’re come in between. Now they’re both home in their Missouri hometown and there is a lot that needs to be discussed but that happens gradually. Luke is now a single Dad and Shelby is a globe trotting photographer. Their romance was special to me. There was a lot of understandable hurt, a family feud, hot air balloons…& the slow and steady yet hard hitting realization of what ‘home’ means. Needless to say-I’ve hauled the second two books in the series and am so excited for more Michele Dunaway in my reading. She’s writing romances in my little neck of the woods back home and that’s really special to me. Can’t recommend enough 🙆🏽‍♀️🩵🩷

thecategoricallyromancepod - via Instagram

sweet beautiful story of true love

Michele Dunaway is a new face in romance and writes a sweet beautiful story of true love in What Happens in the Air.

Jodi Thomas—NYT and USA Today Bestselling Author

What Happens in the Air

Michele Dunaway is a writer who knows the job and this is my first read by her! I can tell this is a writer who has written category romance for a while and enjoys showing up for the assignment. What Happens in the Air is a coming home story, it’s a second chance at love story between two high school sweethearts. The reason these two didn’t just end up together was believable and made for a juicy conflict that kept me turning pages. It’s small town romance at its best. It has a family feud, undeniable chemistry, found family and is a really exploration of what is home, where is home? Setting down roots. Not needing or wanting to be on the go so much anymore (all centered around the conflict)

It’s a great read.

Bree Hill from Goodreads

What Happens in the Air

Sweet second chance love story. Luke and Shelby grew up next door to each other and were lifelong friends. When they were teenagers, their friendship grew into more, and they had grand plans for their future together. But misunderstandings and outside interference tore them apart, believing the other had betrayed their love.

Shelby left her hometown behind and ultimately became a globe-trotting photographer. As the book opens twelve years later, she is between assignments and plans to spend a few days with her parents in Beaumont, Missouri. She’s shocked when she runs into single dad Luke, who has moved back to Beaumont after his wife’s death.

Luke has never forgotten his first love and recently learned about the interference that drove them apart. Though he doesn’t expect to rekindle their romance, he wants to clear the air and reinstate their friendship. He gets his chance when their fathers’ feud jeopardizes the families’ traditional participation in the town balloon festival.

Shelby only expects to be home for a few days before returning to Seattle, but when she sends some of her hometown pictures to her boss, she’s offered the chance to do a full spread about the festival. This is a significant career advancement, so she jumps at it. Because of their fathers’ feud, this will be the first time their balloon hasn’t flown in the festival. Luke suggests to Shelby that they fly the balloon, hoping the time together will allow them to reconnect. Shelby is wary at first, but once she hears the truth behind their separation, she’s willing to try.

Neither Luke nor Shelby expects anything more than friendship from their time together. Luke and his daughter are putting down roots in Beaumont, staying close to family. Luke has also started a new business that he is excited about. At the same time, Shelby’s life is one of constant travel as she chases her next adventure. But the more time they spend together, the more old feelings return. There are some sweet scenes of the two together, from prepping the balloon and taking test flights to spending time with Luke’s daughter, Anna.

Luke realizes the depth of his feelings first but is sensitive to Shelby’s dedication to her career. I loved that he refused to ask her to give it up for him. His support of her dreams is terrific, even though letting her go again will break his heart. Shelby realizes the depth of her feelings, which are at war with her desired career path. I ached for both as they parted again. I loved the ending, as Shelby finally realized where her heart belonged. Luke doesn’t make it easy for her because he’s afraid to get his hopes up, but in the end, Shelby finds a way to have the best of both worlds. The epilogue was terrific.

My favorite secondary character was Anna. She’s a sweet little kindergartner who takes to Shelby right away. Anna is fascinated by Shelby’s work as a photographer and is over the moon when Shelby offers to teach her. There are great scenes of the two together, and I loved Anna’s excitement over the whole process. Like Shelby, Anna has a good eye, and I loved the bit in the epilogue about her progress.

The feud between the two fathers mainly was two stubborn fools letting their pride get the better of them. I loved seeing Shelby and Luke work around them to get the balloon going and that their mothers were willing accomplices. I also loved the bit at the end where Luke brought them together and told them they were being idiots and set a lousy example for Anna. He didn’t pull any punches, and I was happy that the older men finally got it.

I loved the Missouri setting, especially the sightseeing bits in St. Louis. I’ve been to those places myself, which added a little extra kick to the story.

Susan from Goodreads

a new face in romance

Michele Dunaway is a new face in romance and writes a sweet beautiful story of true love in What Happens in the Air.

Jodi Thomas

a joyous romp

What Happens in the Air is a joyous romp through hot air balloons, small town and the rekindling of a romance after years of misunderstandings. When Shelby comes home she doesn’t expect to run into Luke, her high school love and former best friend. Luke is back in town after the death of his wife and his young daughter takes an immediate liking to Shelby. In between realizing their break-up wasn’t what either of them realized and the spark between them is far from gone, they both nurture their careers and take up their father’s hot air balloon to end a feud between their families. Shelby and Luke’s romance is sweet and their growth as a couples is so fun to be a part of. I loved this story and highly recommend it to romance lovers!

*I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book

Jenna - Goodreads

Read an Except


Ten, nine, eight… As the crowd in Times Square counted down, Shelby’s gaze shifted from the TV screen in the third-floor living room to the figure who’d appeared in the doorway. Her heart jumped. He’d made it.

“Sorry, I’m late. You know how Aunt Edna is,” Luke Thornburg said. He reached for her hand, helping her out of her favorite overstuffed chair. Little tingles ran up her arm. “Come on.”

Hand in hand, they raced down the wide center hallway to the balcony overlooking Main Street. Luke threw open the door and they stepped into the brisk winter air. Down below, revelers on the streets of Beaumont cheered as the clock hit zero.

The fireworks would start when the church bells stopped chiming, and Luke lifted Shelby’s chin and lowered his mouth to hers. She savored the softness of his lips and the touch of his tongue. He drew back and swiped his finger over her cheek. “Happy New Year, Shelby.”

She would not cry. She’d be brave. “Happy New Year, Luke.”

He kissed her again, and as the last chime faded away, he dropped an arm over her shoulders and turned them so they faced the riverfront. “Look!”

The first fireworks whizzed into the sky and, seconds later, burst into a cascade of red stars. She settled into his arms. For most of her seventeen years, she and Luke had watched the celebratory Missouri River fireworks show from this exact spot. They’d known one another forever, after all. But tonight was the first time they’d watched as a couple. They’d started dating in September, right before homecoming. Over winter break, they’d taken the next step, making love. Tonight was their last night together until he returned in June from a semester abroad. She’d miss him terribly.

Luke drew her even closer. “Aunt Edna kept talking. I couldn’t get away.”

“It’s okay.” She’d met Aunt Edna and understood. Still, during the wait, Shelby had nibbled off her lip gloss. A self-described tomboy, she’d worn the faint pink color because dressing up for New Year’s Eve was family tradition and she’d wanted Luke to remember her as fancy and pretty. She wrapped her arms around his waist. Despite herself, she was nervous. She never should have listened to Maren—their new friend who’d moved to Beaumont right before Thanksgiving. Maren maintained Luke was after one thing—sex—and once Shelby put out, he’d be like most guys and dump her. After all, Maren said, who could fault him if he wanted freedom from entanglements while in London?

Secure in his arms, Shelby shoved away any lingering doubts. Luke was only a few months older and her best friend. Their fathers had served in the military together, so their parents had been friends forever and next-door neighbors almost as long. Shelby’s childhood pictures had Luke and/or his parents in them. They’d shared milestones: from first steps, to learning to fish, to crewing their families’ hot-air balloon, to being each other’s first kiss, and then first lovers. More fireworks burst over the sky.

“I can tell you’re sad, you know,” Luke said. “June will be here before we know it.”

She couldn’t be selfish. The semester abroad was such a great opportunity for him. “Nine a.m. flight, right?”

“Yeah. I’m nervous,” he admitted.

“You’ll do great,” she encouraged, trying to remain upbeat.

His tone turned wistful. “Except I’m going to miss taking you to prom. Email me pictures of your dress. And email me every day. And keep taking pictures.”

Shelby forced a smile, for whenever she thought of his leaving, her heart hurt. But she’d encouraged him to go. Luke had finished all his high school credits a semester early, and it was a great opportunity for him to attend this educational program in England. She herself would travel the world if given the chance. “You know it. And I’m excited to try out my new camera.”

Her parents had given her a DSLR camera for Christmas, and Luke had accompanied her when she’d tested it out. Eventually she hoped to see all the places she read about in the Global Outdoors magazine her parents bought for the inn’s guest parlor. “Dad said we’ve got a world-famous photographer staying with us in a few weeks. Maybe she’ll give me some pointers.”

Cheers erupted from the people below on Main Street as more vivid shades of red, green, yellow and blue boomed overhead.

Luke pushed back dark blond hair. “My leaving won’t change anything,” he promised as orange flames bloomed across the clear night. Somewhere along the line he’d grown half a head taller. His cheekbones had become more defined and chiseled. He smelled divine—like a spice with a hint of sage.

But leaving would change things, Shelby knew. Besides missing prom, he wouldn’t see her make her first flight as a hot-air-balloon pilot, a goal she’d been working toward for almost two years. Curling her fingers into his jacket, she gripped tight as glittery silver fireworks zigzagged and swooshed. Her breath made small clouds in the chilly air. Jittery nerves made her poke him directly below his left rib. His childhood body had been replaced by rock-solid muscle—her family and his had celebrated his eighteenth birthday the day after Thanksgiving.

“Hey, stop that. I’m bigger, you know.”

She clung to their easy teasing. “I’m not scared of you.”

“You should be. I’m older and wiser.”

“By two whole months.” He laughed with the deep throaty sound she liked and a mouth that made her tingle all over whenever he kissed her. Which he now did.

“Still older,” he said as he broke the kiss. “I’ll miss that when I’m gone.” His gaze sharpened. “I’ll miss you.”

More fireworks shot forth and began booming, but rather than watching them, Shelby focused on how the bright lights reflected like flames in Luke’s brown eyes. The colors highlighted a jawline covered with light stubble. “When I said I loved you, I meant it.”

“I know. I love you, too.” Without letting go, she faced the river. When she and Luke had been younger, they’d stood here and searched for river pirates. They’d pretended to be riverboat captains, or explorers surveying uncharted land. When they’d entered their teens, they’d discussed homework assignments, or later, their first crushes. None of her or Luke’s crushes had ever rated a second date.

Luke made her laugh. He kept her secrets. He held her when she cried. Once he’d carried her home half a mile after she’d sprained her ankle. The tingly warmth of his body kept the chill at bay. He was her other half.

No other boy held a candle to him. And when they’d sealed their love? The three waterfall fireworks that overlapped in a loud, colorful symphony in the finale couldn’t begin to compare to the sparks of their lovemaking. Below, the revelers oohed and aahed but, for Shelby, impending loss settled like a rock in her stomach. The middle of June was a lifetime away.

Down below, partygoers returned inside. Luke and Shelby remained at the railing, watching the plumes of residual gray smoke dissipate. Heading into the brightness meant saying goodbye. A horn blared below and they instinctively turned toward each other. Luke leaned his forehead against hers. Warm hands slid up to cup her cheeks. “You’re freezing.”

“I’m fine,” she lied. Her flats, cream tights and plaid dress, so perfect for the inn’s annual Ring-in-the-New-Year party inside, didn’t keep away the chill like the heavy sweater, jeans and boots he was wearing.

“Your teeth are chattering.” But instead of moving toward the door, his thumbs slid to her mouth—right thumb pressed to her bottom lip—and Shelby sucked in an anticipatory breath.

“We’re going to be okay, Shelby.”

While time could do nothing but march forward, for a brief moment, the world slowed. Paused, as Luke brought his lips softly to hers like a butterfly’s landing. “I love you.”

The kiss deepened and sent Shelby spiraling until they heard her dad as he shouted, “Are you two up there?”

Shelby’s eyelids snapped open. Luke dropped his hands. Fumbling for composure, she stepped into the bright hallway. “Yep. Fireworks just finished.”

Shelby’s dad gaze flickered between the two of them, his face unreadable as he took in her swollen lips. “Time to call it a night.” To Luke, he said, “Your parents and Aunt Edna walked home already.”

“Thanks. Happy New Year, Shelby.” Luke took the back stairs two at a time.

“Everything okay?” her dad asked.

She would not cry at the interrupted goodbye. Once they’d told their parents they were dating, both of their dads had started checking on them. Her mom had even given her the sex talk—an awkward experience.

“I’ll miss him. He’s my best friend.” Voicing facts didn’t lessen the hurt.

Her dad’s big-bear hugs normally made things better, but not this time. “I know it’s hard. But he’ll be back in June. Until then, you’ll have prom and graduation and… My princess going off to college in August? Say it isn’t so.”

She wiggled to get free. “Dad.”

He released her with a last ruffle of her pixie cut. She entered her bedroom, closed the door and flopped down on the huge four-poster with a pink floral bedspread.

A light soon flashed from the window of the three-story building next door. Shelby grabbed the flashlight she kept on a bedside table and plunged her room into darkness. In middle school, she and Luke had learned Morse code in Explorers. They’d become so proficient they’d won a competition, and with a limited cell-phone calling plan and no data, sending messages became their thing.

“We’ll see each other when I get back,” Luke sent. “First thing.”

“Okay,” Shelby returned.

“I love you.”

“Me too.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“Me too.”

“Write me.”

“I will. Every day”

“Do not forget.”

“I won’t,” she promised, meaning every long and short pulse of light she used to create the words.

“Pinkie swear.” He used the term from when they’d been seven and determined that swearing loyalty was the best way to keep each other’s secrets. So far they’d never betrayed that trust.

Missing him already, a tear threatened as she signaled back, “I love you. Forever friends. Pinkie swear.”

Fate would make a liar of them both.